Problems With the Three Houses Tool

In cases of child abuse, a social worker or therapist working with the child may turn to the Three Houses Tool.

The tool was created in 2008, in New Zealand, by Nicki Weld and Maggie Greening to create a space through which they could talk to children about life at home.

The process starts with a diagram of three houses, and encourages the child to explore three assessment areas:

  1. What is the child worried about?
  2. What's working well?
  3. How might things look if they were at their best?

In the Three Tools diagnostic, these translate to the House of Worries, the House of Good Things, and the House of Dreams.

Once complete, the facilitator might ask the child if they can show these houses to their parents, relatives, or other caregivers involved in the case.

The House of Limitations

Developed by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards in Western Australia, the Signs of Safety is a guided approach to child protection casework. Throughout the 1990s, they collaborated with over 150 Western Australia child protection workers.

The central focus of the Signs of Safety is on building partnerships with parents and children where a situation of suspected child abuse has occurred or is occurring. It has been designed to deal rigorously with the abuse through being a strength-based and safety-focused model.

However, as the popularity of the model has increased around the world, from North America to the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and Japan, it has gained an almost diagnostic reputation far beyond its original scope.

The purpose of the Three Houses tool was to allow clinicians and practitioners to gather information about how the child felt about their environment. However, it was never intended to diagnose a child with a mental disorder, or comprehensively confirm situations of abuse.

The fact that it is referred to as the Three Houses “tool” and the Three Houses “model” has confused the way people use the process and make judgments about its results.

The tool is in use around the world, but it has never been proven in any study or experiment to be forensically sound, or solid enough to provide evidence that a child is a victim of abuse.

Furthermore, it has never been evaluated or assessed in a controlled manner to decide whether or not it provides any usefulness.

The aim of the Three Houses was, ultimately, to help therapeutic practitioners gain information for use in their counseling sessions. It wasn't designed to provide irrefutable evidence or validate claims.

Ongoing Confusion About the Houses

There is currently confusion and skepticism towards the relevance of the Three Houses tool. Early research has been conducted in the UK, where the Department for Education funded a study into the Signs of Safety program.

In the UK, a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children commissioned study, presented inconclusive findings around the effectiveness of the Three Houses. Many practitioners found the Three Houses model contributed positively to developing a safe environment for parents and children. However, the Three Houses were used with other interventions and interactions as a way to open communication.

Further research has found that there was no consensus on the appropriate age of children for Three Houses to be used. Social workers in the UK challenged the usefulness of the tool for adolescents over the age of 14.

Unsafe Foundations

While there seems to be a definite benefit in using the Three Houses tool to open communications and establish a dialog in families, the tool has been stretched much further than it was intended.

Some social workers went so far as to refer (wrongly) to the child's input during the Three Houses playtime as the child's own personal "assessment." However, there has been no research to reinforce that children are more likely to be giving an actual "assessment" of their life during this playtime versus just giving a spontaneous fictional story, even if it might be "inspired by" real events.

None of this invalidates the benefits of the tool. However, it dramatically highlights the limitations of using the Three Houses tool as a diagnostic tool (i.e., to provide evidence on which to diagnose the child with a mental disorder) or forensic tool (i.e., to provide evidence that a crime has been committed against the child).

While relationship-building is essential for caseworkers dealing with families and young people, it must not be the primary evidence for proof of child abuse. To regard the results of the Three Houses playtime as a primary piece of evidence in a child abuse case places a huge burden of proof on children who may not understand the severity of the issue, or who may be merely treating the Three Houses exercise as playtime to engage in fantasy.

Until there is peer-reviewed evidence, and controlled studies conducted into the direct connection between the Three Houses model and successfully finding instances of child abuse, it lacks evidentiary value useful in Child Abuse Central Index grievance hearings.